Svalbard Adventure: The Circle of Life

7/27/2011 5:00:00 AM

Svalbard Adventure: The Circle of Life

Walrus portrait

Last night we heard from another passing vessel that there were walrus in the area. Captain Mark had a good idea of where—and so we watch, scanning the horizon just above the bow. Glassing port to starboard, a thin strip of land begins to emerge. There, clumped like old discarded oil drums on this gravel-laden barrier island, we spot what looks like lumpy brown boulders.

We cautiously motor closer and as we do, a flipper rises from the beach to scratch an itching muzzle, and a head raises to snort, two ivory-colored daggers protruding from its upper jaw. The stink on the wind confirms it—definitely walrus. Very strange looking, but truly one of the Arctic's most amazing creatures.

As we get closer we notice something unusual lying on the beach at water's edge. It's the color of old rotting snow, not quite white but lighter than the gray, rocky pebbles on the shore. Definitely a body of some sort. Someone calls out "dead caribou" as I study it intently through my binoculars. I don't see a caribou or, more accurately, reindeer, as they're called here on the islands of Spitsbergen. No, I see something else. First off it seems much too large for one of the diminutive creatures known as the Svalbard reindeer. Secondly, the color isn't right. It's too consistently light to be a local ungulate. Then I see the underside of a paw, a black pattern in the form of a pad: large at the base with four smaller black spots at the end of the appendage. Beyond the pads are claws, amazingly distinct even at 50 yards. This isn't a reindeer: it's a polar bear.

Dead polar bear on the beach

Captain Mark gently nudges the nose of the ship into the sandy spit on the backside of island so as not to disturb the pod of walrus. He lowers the Zodiak from the bow and everybody climbs aboard. We make landfall and spend the next couple of hours documenting walruses on shore. This small group of merry-makers seems to be youngsters or more accurately teenagers. Short tusks and lots of cavorting in the surf suggest young at heart at the very least. Those on land rest peacefully as we respectfully make our way to the opposite side of the spit; there along the water's edge rests the carcass of the polar bear.

Coming ashore on Svalbard island

JoAnne Simerson, a polar bear specialist from the San Diego Zoo, is with us. She's a good friend and an associate with Polar Bears International. Her first reaction is to check the dead animal's teeth, always an indicator of what may have gone wrong. From what she can tell this was a fairly young bear, most likely just beyond what would be considered his teenage years. For most people the size alone would suggest an older individual, but in the polar bear world all bears are big. This guy was tall and lanky, not unusual for a male polar bear. His slender physique is accentuated by the fact that he had virtually no meat on his bones. Essentially all male polar bears are relatively tall, with long powerful legs they use to swim hundreds of miles if needed. In these days of the melting Arctic, long distance swims are more necessary than ever. 

JoAnne Simerson examines dead polar bear

There's no way to know how long he has rested in silence. Pebbles on the beach have begun to slowly cover his body, specks of gray-colored sand pepper the fur around the socket of his eye. This nomad of the north looks serenely out of place. There is no ice. We've seen barely a cube of ice since leaving Longyearbyen and the flat frozen platform from which all polar bears hunt has been nonexistent. The contrast between the off-white of his pelt and the surrounding blue of water and sky is striking. This is not the environment I'm accustomed to seeing polar bears in. This reminds me more of my times photographing whales near the equator. Our guests make comments about the fabulous weather and rightfully so. It's only natural for humans to wake, walk out on the deck to a stunningly beautiful day and vocalize the obvious, "What a gorgeous morning." Unfortunately for polar bears, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Our visit to the beach lasts for nearly two hours. Climbing aboard I reflect on the supreme contradiction between life and death, walrus and polar bear, arctic ice and arctic melt. The circle of life could not have been more pronounced on this little barrier island in the high, iceless Arctic on this glorious summer day in July.

Photos ©Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures.

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